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    Middle East
     Jan 9, 2010

Mercenaries off the hook
By Charles McDermid and Abeer Muhammad

BAGHDAD - Traffic marshal Ali Khalaf Salman casts a flinty, green-eyed gaze over central Baghdad's Nisour Square each day like a Las Vegas pit boss on the prowl. The former commando has been the top cop at the busy urban intersection for years, and he's seen his fair share of "incidents".

"I am an ordinary Iraqi man. I fought in several wars during Saddam's era, and, after the 2003 invasion, I witnessed a lot of blood. It is not easy for a man like me to be haunted by the scene of a killing," said Salman, 40, as he stopped watching the streets for a moment and looked off in to a memory.

"But it's hard for me to forget prying a woman's charred body off a


burning car with a hoe after hearing her screaming for my help."

The harrowing scene came on September 16, 2007, in the immediate aftermath of what has become known as the Nisour Square Massacre. This was the day heavily armed troops working for the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater opened fire on a group of some 40 Iraqi civilians, killing 17 and wounding at least 20.

Blackwater claims that its employees, who at the time were escorting a US State Department team, were forced to defend themselves against small arms fire and improvised explosives. Iraqi eyewitnesses, such as Salman, say the attack was strictly one-sided. The US government eventually conceded that "innocent life was lost".

There were at least five seperate investigations of the incident and many conflicting reports. In one finding, the Blackwater guards were said to have tossed grenades into the congested area and received air supprot by at least one Blackwater helicopter which sprayed the crowd with heavy machine gun fire. Blackwater has denied these reports, but news agency Reuters released images after the attack of several vehicles that were torched and left as smoldering heaps at the intersection. 

The incident enraged the Iraqi government, which called it a "terrorist act". The world public was appalled, and relations between Baghdad and Washington bottomed out. To most Iraqis, Blackwater became instantly synonymous with the perception of an uncaring occupation force drunk on macho lawlessness and impunity.

The bloody assault exposed the Pentagon's increasing reliance on sometimes brutal hired guns, and pushed Washington into enforcing new regulations for its growing host of military contractors. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation found that most of the deaths "were unjustified and violated deadly-force rules". American soldiers who came upon the scene reportedly called it a "criminal event".

The incident's infamous reputation added to the anger last week when Iraqis learned of a US court's decision to dismiss a federal case against the five Blackwater employees charged with 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter for the Nisour Square shooting.

The subsequent announcement on Thursday that Blackwater, now "re-branded" under the commercial name Xe, had reached out-of-court compensation settlements in seven outstanding civil cases for the use of excessive violence and killings of Iraqis has brought relief to some. An early report by al-Jazeera quoted one victim as calling the as-yet-undisclosed settlement "a victory against the Blackwater firm".

(Also on Thursday, two former Blackwater security guards were arrested in the United States on murder charges in connection with a shooting incident in Afghanistan last May in which two Afghans were killed and a third wounded, the Justice Department said.)

In Iraq, people are left to wonder if financial compensation to victims and victims' families is worth more than a criminal judgment from the US Justice Department, like the one that was thrown out, and if those who fired the bullets will ever be punished for their alleged crimes.

"The American court's decision is a clear violation of human rights. The incident in Nisour Square was a crime against humanity which deserves serious punishment not a settlement," said Ali Raheem al-Asadi, of the rights group Iraqi Foundation. "It is bizarre to have such criminals exonerated by a country that presents itself as advocating for human rights everywhere."

Asadi and other activists are urging the Iraqi government to push the US to hand the shooters over to Iraqi authorities in order to face trial in the country where the event took place.

The United Nations Human Rights Council released a statement on Thursday pressing Baghdad and Washington to pursue the case with "those responsible held accountable". The UN's committee on the use of mercenaries called for oversight in order to "avoid these alleged violations going unpunished in the future".

The Iraqi government has talked tough on the dismissal. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rejected the court's December 31 decision as "unfair and unacceptable", and has vowed to prosecute Blackwater in US and Iraqi courts.

Analysts were quick to point out that Maliki is facing an difficult re-election bid in March, and might be exercising a popular public punching-bag such as Blackwater for political gain. An Iraqi legal expert told Asia Times Online that the process of bringing a high-powered private company like Blackwater to any court would be "very, very complex". There is now speculation over which politician or political party will come forward to claim credit for coercing the compensation settlements.

"No one on earth believes that Maliki could beat an American citizen in an American court. It would take magic for him to win [this case] in an Iraqi court," said political analyst and retired political science professor Abdullah Jafar. "Maliki is exactly like the other Iraqi politicians; he is campaigning and promising to do impossible things."

Jafar continued: "For the first time in the history of the democratic process in Iraq after 2003, Iraqi politicians have all agreed on one point with no dispute. That agreement was regarding the American judge's decision in the Blackwater case. They all agreed that the decision is unfair; they all reject it; they all promise to do their best to help the victims.

"But we do not need to ask why. It is very clear: the elections are coming soon. This is all propaganda for the upcoming parliamentary elections."

Washington has also come under criticism for its handling of the case. In his final ruling to dismiss the Blackwater case, Judge Ricardo Urbina blasted US Justice Department prosecutors for botching the case by using inadmissible evidence. A January 6 editorial in the Washington Post called Urbina's verdict "infuriating" but "correct", and blamed the prosecutors for "flouting legal rules and constitutional provisions that made dismissal of the charges inevitable".

The same prosecuting team warned the US Congress as early as January 2008 that the unspecified legal parameters of private military companies and previously unknown State Department immunity deals would present major obstacles in winning the case.

That same month, the advocacy group Human Rights First released a statement that read, "The US government's reaction to the shootings has been characterized by confusion, defensiveness, a multiplicity of uncoordinated ad hoc investigations, and inter-agency finger pointing."

Salman's interpretation of the events that happened in Nisour Square is much more precise. It was a hot summer day, as he tells it, and he was at his post monitoring the traffic roundabout. Just minutes after four Blackwater vehicles entered the congested roadway, he heard the sound of three gunshots. He thought they had been fired into the air until he heard a woman screaming for her son.

He ran in the direction of the voice and until he reached a small car with a young man behind the wheel. The youth was drenched in blood with his hysterical mother beside him.

"I thought the young man was still alive, so I tried to get him out of the car. At that moment, Blackwater guards opened fire on us. I ran and hid behind a nearby kiosk," Salman said. "When the Blackwater vehicles left, I rushed to the woman's car to find two burned, charred bodies. The woman and her son's bodies were stuck to the car. I used a hoe to separate the bodies from the metal."

According to Salman, the image comes back to him at unexpected times, especially when he takes a break from work at the intersection and sits down for a quiet moment.

"It is not the killing or the blood that hurt me. It is the feeling and emotions at that time; a woman wanted to save her son's life in any way, and I wanted to help her in any way. But she could not save her son and I could not help her. Instead, she lost her life too," he said.

In a statement on Thursday, officials of the former Blackwater said they were "pleased" with the settlement agreement that ended the civil lawsuits. One of the complaints claimed the company ran a private army that stalked "the streets of Baghdad killing innocent civilians".

"This [settlement] enables Xe's new management to move the company forward free of the costs and distraction of ongoing litigation, and provides some compensation to Iraqi families," the statement read.

The civil suits were filed on behalf of the victims and victims' families by the famous civil rights defender the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Susan Burke of Burke O'Neil LLC.

Copies of the civil complaint posted on the CCR website allege that the attack at Nisour Square was "sensleess slaughter" and that Blackwater "fostered a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company's financial interests at the expense of innocent human life."

The suits also charge that Blackwater employees were "chemically influenced by steroids and other judgment-altering substances". The suits also charged Blackwater owner, Erik Prince, with making "a series of verbal and written statements that evidenced his support of the wanton killing of those of the Islamic faith".

Blackwater was denied a license to operate in Iraq in January 2009, after the government made several attempts to ban it. According to reports, the company worked without permission until May 2009, when it ended official operations in Iraq as the US declined to renew its contract. The North Carolina-based company, formed in 1997 by two former Navy Seals, remains the largest of the US State Department's military contractors. By one estimate, the company has received over US$1 billion in US government contracts.

In February 2009, when the name-change was made public, the reason given was that the name "Blackwater" might carry too much association with the companies controversial time in the occupation of Iraq. For many Iraqis, the end of the company's name is hardly enough. If not completely unscathed by the alleged events of Nisour Square in 2007, Blackwater seems to many to have left Iraq unpunished.

"I want to see the Blackwater criminals in jail. This will not make me forget the horrible scene, but at least it will relieve my soul," said Salman as he pulled on a long blue coat at the end of his day overseeing Nisour Square. "I feel something has to be done to those criminals. The only way to help that woman is to have them punished."

Abeer Muhammad is senior local editor and Charles McDermid is an editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Iraq.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Turmoil reveals Iraqi reliance on US
(Dec 14, '09)

Law is clear: Blackwater is not above it
(Oct 16, '07)

Blackwater pays price for Iraqi firefight (Sep 19, '07)

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